Leadership : Mary and the leadership evolution

Over a career spanning almost 40 years, spent in the voluntary and private sectors and latterly running my own business focused on leadership, I have had the opportunity to observe and experience leaders of every shape, size and type.  I have seen good leaders, mediocre ones, poor leaders and some who frankly terrified me.  Far too rarely have I worked for or come across great leaders who truly inspired me.

That for me is a problem, because it is through great leadership that we unlock potential, change lives, build teams, transform organisations and change society. 

We need great leaders at every level, it’s not just the preserve of those at the top of organisations.  Great leaders make a positive difference to those around them whether they are a director, middle manager, team leader, in a front line role or volunteering in the community.

Great leadership is so difficult to define but I am convinced it begins with the need to be authentic.  I am aware that ‘authentic leadership’ has become an overused term, but for me an authentic leader is someone who is committed to serving others, as opposed to being self-serving, and strives every day to do the right thing in the right way, basing their decision making on their deep rooted values and beliefs.  People choose to follow because of who they are, not the position they hold.

The more I study the great leaders I encounter the more I am convinced that, whatever their shape, size and style, they do display a common set of traits.  Over time I have examined those traits and have explored them in my recently published book ‘Lead Like Mary’.

Mary is a fictional character but is based on a number of great leaders I know and have worked with over the years.  She is far from perfect, but knows that, and strives every day to improve, to become more effective.

Here are the ten traits that I believe make Mary a great leader.

  1. Mary genuinely believes that her first role as a leader is to serve others
  2. She is personally highly effective
  3. She is values-led and courageous
  4. Mary is both trusting and trustworthy.  Through this she builds highly effective relationships
  5. She gets the right people on the bus, and the wrong people off
  6. She is a visionary who executes
  7. She gives her people absolute clarity
  8. Mary gives her people freedom within a framework.  She practices creative discipline
  9. She believes in and practices joint accountability
  10. She is relentless

The first four traits define who Mary is, they are character based and lie deep inside her.  Much has been written about servant-leadership over the years, I am just convinced that genuinely effective leaders are deeply rooted in this commitment to serve others.  It also ties in so closely to ‘level 5 leaders’ explored by Jim Collins in ‘Good to Great’, a common trait of leaders in the organisations who had made the breakthrough being low ego and personal humility.

Mary also strives every day to be personally effective, I stress again that she knows she is far from perfect.  She is values-led, she thinks deeply about what is most important to her and through that inner strength, is courageous when it comes to making difficult decisions, she bases those decisions on what she knows is the right thing to do.  She is also highly trustworthy, and her natural instinct is to demonstrate her trust in others.  She understands the importance of building long-term highly effective relationships based on mutual respect and mutual benefit.

Mary is an ‘inside-out’ leader.  She knows that the leadership journey begins with herself deep in the inner circle.  It is only through who she is that she gains the right and ability to lead those around her.

The other six traits are all about how effectively she leads those around her, be they her team, colleagues, customers, external contacts, boss or indeed family, friends and community, for these are whole life principles.

Mary knows that to be effective herself and to build highly effective teams, organisations and communities she must surround herself with the right people.  She devotes great effort to getting the right people on the bus, and where necessary the wrong people off.  She never ducks a difficult decision.  She is able to paint a compelling picture of the future, whatever she is working on, but also understands the importance of delivering results, of getting the job done.  As Bill Gates said, ‘vision without execution is daydreaming.’

Mary ensures her people know absolutely what is expected of them.  She very clearly defines their role and goals, and through demonstrating how what they do fits into the bigger picture she creates ‘line of sight.’  She then gives her people the freedom to deliver, but always within a clear framework.  Mary knows her role is to provide her people with the clarity, tools and support they need at just the right level to do the job, and that every one of her people is a unique individual with differing needs.  She holds her people accountable for delivering but also understands she can only do so if she has held herself accountable for providing the right level of freedom and support.

Finally, Mary is relentless.  Every day as a leader she hits brick walls which knock her back, she has obstacles to overcome, negative energy to resist.  Being an effective leader, delivering the right results in the right way is far from easy.  But every day she picks herself up, dusts herself down and carries on, absolutely determined to succeed, but always through her people.  Someone described leadership to me as ‘surround yourself with the right people and then just grind it out.’

In ‘Lead Like Mary’ I explore each of these traits in detail, examining how Mary translates them into everyday action. I include case studies and reflection exercises, and provide signposting to further reading.

No matter how frustrated I get when I encounter poor, mediocre or self-serving leadership I am very positive about the future.  I increasingly see a new generation of young leaders emerging who seem determined to lead in the right way based on their values and the belief that if you treat people in the right way and unlock their potential they will achieve amazing results.  I work with these young leaders every day and they fill me with energy and hope.

It’s a long slow journey, and there is no revolution here, but I do see this evolution taking place.  

Those of us who have been around a long time can all play our small part in encouraging this evolution. 

"Full of wisdom, approachable and easy to grasp"

Andrew Higginson, ex Finance & Strategy Director, Tesco PLC

"This book will inspire a whole new generation of leaders"

Matt Hyde, Chief Exec. The Scout Association

Lead Like Mary was published in April this year.  To order your copy go to www.leadlikemary.com

Barry has worked with thousands of people in dozens of organisations across all sectors to build leadership capability and build sustainable effectiveness.  His work incorporates coaching, mentoring, facilitating and teaching.




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